Mark Shea: Mariology From A-Z (Part 2)

Former Protestant Comments on Mary and Ecumenism

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By Annamarie Adkins

SEATTLE, Washington, JULY 17, 2009 ( Even though the early Protestant Reformers praised the Virgin Mary — some even had a great devotion to her — Catholic Marian doctrine has become a stumbling block for many Protestants and divided Christians for over four centuries.

Now, however, some Protestants are rediscovering the Blessed Mother, reinvigorating conversations between Catholics and Protestants about her role in the life and faith of the Church.

Mark Shea decided to provide a comprehensive resource for this dialogue, and the result is “Mary, Mother of the Son,” a three-volume work of apologetics published by Catholic Answers.

Shea is senior content editor at Catholic Exchange. In addition to his role as a popular Catholic blogger, speaker, and writer, Shea is the star of an upcoming motion picture — an adaptation of G.K. Chesterton’s novel “Manalive.”

He spoke with ZENIT about why attacks on the Mother of God are really attacks on Christ and His Church.

Part 1 of this interview appeared Thursday.

ZENIT: Why is Mary such a stumbling block to Christian unity? Shouldn’t all Christians at least be able to unite around their Mother?

Shea: They should, but they haven’t for roughly four centuries. There’s hope in that number however, because it means that hostility to and fear of Mary is, historically speaking, a very recent phenomenon and one that really only took off well after the Reformation began.

Many of the Reformers had a profound devotion to Mary and, in fact, accepted much of Catholic teaching about her. However, as Protestantism became more remote from Catholic teaching (and as, in English-speaking countries, Elizabeth I found it very convenient to supplant the cult of the Virgin with a political cult of the Virgin Queen), that connection failed and was eventually broken.

Along with that went the loss of a sense of the sacramental, of the senses of Scripture, and of an appreciation for the feminine in the life of the Church. Mary came to be seen almost exclusively as a sort of pagan goddess and an actual threat to genuine Christian devotion: a perception that would have been absolutely foreign to the mind of any Christian in the first 16 centuries of the Church.

ZENIT: You note that attacks on the Church’s Mariology are really attacks on its Christology. How and why is this the case?

Shea: The thing about Mary is that the thing is never about Mary.

Take the Virgin Birth. One of the earliest slurs uttered against Jesus was that he was a bastard, the product of a liaison between Mary and a Roman soldier named Pantera (probably a corruption of “parthenos” which is Greek for “virgin”).

Is the point of the slur to attack Mary? Of course not! The point is to attack Jesus as a mere common bastard and to deny that he is the Son of God or of any divine origin.

Likewise, when the heretic Nestorius demanded that Christians no longer hail Mary as “Theotokos” or “God bearer”, his attack was directed not at Mary, but at the notion that the Man Jesus and the Second Person of the Trinity were a unity.

Similarly, the question, “Where is the Assumption of Mary in the Bible?” is not really about Mary. It’s a question about the validity of Christ’s sacred Tradition and the authority of Christ’s Church.

“Why should I pray to Mary?” is not a question about Mary. It’s a question about the relationship of the living and the dead in Christ.

“Do Catholics worship Mary?” is not a question about Mary. It’s a question about whether Catholics really worship Christ.

In short, Evangelical jitters about Mary both pay homage to and yet overlook the central truth about Mary that the Catholic Church wants us to see: that Mary’s life, in its entirety, is a referred life.

Attacks on Christ and his gospel virtually always are made via his Body, the Church. We saw this, for instance, with The Da Vinci Code. The message, as usual, was “I have the highest respect for Jesus, it’s just that the Church has totally perverted what he really came to say (which was, by a strange coincidence, what I am saying).” And since Mary is the type of the Church, it is fitting that she stands as a sort of hedge of protection around the truth of the Faith.

ZENIT: Should Protestants and others be concerned about Catholic Marian devotions? Is the poorly catechized Catholic who clings to her Rosary and prays in front of her makeshift shrine to Our Lady of Perpetual Help really in spiritual danger?

Shea: When it comes to Mary, the average Evangelical Protestant is in a position analogous to that of a teetotaler terrified that a sip of wine at communion will transform him into a raging drunken libertine.

Rather than be hyper-focused on the question of whether Catholics honor Mary “too much” and are just about to bow down to Astarte and Isis, the Evangelical would find much more spiritual benefit asking the question “How is it we Evangelicals honor her ‘just enough’?”

When honestly considered (especially against the backdrop of historic Christianity and the practice of the apostolic Church), what he will discover is that it is Evangelicalism that is peculiarly fearful of the woman whom Scripture declares all generations shall called blessed.

Aside from pulling her out of the closet to sing “Round yon virgin, mother and child” she is basically never spoken of among Evangelicals—except to say that Catholics are way overboard about her.

But the reality is that the most Marian Catholics (think John Paul II or Mother Teresa) also tend to be the most Christocentric ones. That’s because all real Marian devotion refers us to Christ.

Is that to say it’s absolutely impossible for a Catholic to make an idol of Mary? Certainly not.

Human ingenuity in sin is never asleep and we can make an idol out of any creature. On very rare occasions, Mariolatry can happen. But it is to say that Protestant fears on this score are as much in touch with reality as a cradle Catholic of bygone generations who feared that reading the Bible on his own will lead directly to snake handling.

Catholics have, by and large, entered the twenty-first century when it comes to that superstition. But there are still millions of Protestants who subscribe to a grossly superstitious fear of Marian devotion that is a relic of the late nineteenth century. I’ve traveled from Australia to Ireland and have never met a soul who mistook Mary for God. The real blunder about Mary to which some Catholics (the sort who are fascinated with visions, apparitions and private revelations) are prone is this: some mistake her not for another God, but for another Pope, insisting that the bishops have to do this or that because Mary told them to.

For both Mary-wary Protestants and Catholics who imagine the Church should navigate by making Marian Apparitions into a sort of One Woman Magisterium, It’s time to move on (or rather back, to the practice of the early Church fathers and a clear understanding of the Church’s magisterial office).

ZENIT: Is there too much attention paid to Mary in today’s Church, or too little?

Shea: There’s too little attention paid to the Faith, period. So ignorance and apathy about Mary are part of that, I reckon.

ZENIT: Your book is praised by a number of prominent evangelical-Protestant theologians. Is there a growing interest in the figure of Mary among Protestants? Why?

Shea: Starvation makes you hungry. Jesus knew what he was doing when he gave Mary to the Church as our mother. The human soul needs her and Protestantism has been starved of her for g
oing on four centuries.

So there is, in the Providence of God, a growing interest in her, especially among the rising generation of Evangelicals (sometimes referred to as the “Emergent Church”).

People are taking a fresh look at the ancient reverence of her in the apostolic Churches and asking “Where is the harm in that?” It’s a good question, especially since Mary is, in every healthy expression of Christian spirituality, always immediately pointing us to Jesus.

And, of course, through Mary’s unique gifts in Christ, God can minister to hurts in the human soul that are unreachable by other forms of Christian piety.

Evangelicals, for instance, who have lost a child, have found themselves turning to Mary for consolation since she too knows what it is to watch her Son die. That’s a mighty powerful bond of compassion and it can overcome the fears of Mary which typically prevail in Evangelical culture.

ZENIT: Archbishop Fulton Sheen once wrote in an essay about the apparitions at Fatima that Mary was the key to bringing Christ to the Islamic world. What do you think of this proposal?

Shea: I think he’s on to something.

I have no idea how it will all play out, but I was struck by a conversation I once had with a man from Turkey who emailed me asking for more information about the Catholic Church. He was raised Muslim but was drawn to Christ.

Looking over the vast menu of Christianities available on the web he was very quick to pare it all down to the Catholic Church. Why? “Because you honor Mary as we are taught to do in Islam.”

I think there’s something mighty important going on in that, just as I have noticed that, among the various folks I have met who have become Catholic from a Jewish background, virtually all of them have had some sort of mystical encounter with Mary.

I’m not sure what that means, but it has always felt significant to me.

She seems to be getting busier as we draw ever closer to That Day.

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On ZENIT’s Web page:

Part 1:

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